‘The Crow and the Fox’ A salutary fable by La Fontaine (1621-1695)
‘The Crow and the Fox’ A salutary fable by La Fontaine (1621-1695)
By Canon Jim Foley
There can’t be many of us left. If there are, I would be happy to hear from them before it’s too late. I am referring to those of us who had the good fortune to take our first steps in rudimentary French, under the guidance of Miss Kathleen McAnulty in St.Mary’s, Coatbridge, circa 1945. She, singlehandedly, introduced us to the poetic world of La Fontaine and to a life-long enjoyment of his fables. Most of that generation could probably still recite ‘Le corbeau et le renard par La Fontaine’ by heart, even after seventy years. We might even be persuaded to have a go at ‘Le cigal et la fourmi’ (The grasshopper and the ant’) as an encore. Kathleen later married and assumed the married name of Burns.
No creature was too small and none too large to gain entry into La Fontaine’s poetic menagerie; there are foxes that charm the birds off the trees; tortoises that outrun hares; stags that see their splendid antlers as a feather in their caps, only to discover that they are more of a bee in their bonnets; snakes that can’t make head nor tail of themselves; mice that frighten the daylights out of elephants; an oyster that is taken out of its shell to settle a bet between two friends, only to be eaten by a passer-by. One of La Fontaine’s most colourful characters is surely the cat masquerading as a lawyer, who hands down a sentence on a weasel for squatting in a rabbit’s burrow. The cat is described as:
‘A Jesuitical, hypocritical,
smily, purry, wiley,
furry sleek and fat
lawyer of a cat’.
More than two thousand years before La Fontaine put pen to paper, with his own procession of animals, a Greek poet had already claimed something of a monopoly on fables, and that was Aesop (620-564 BC).
Indeed, most countries have their own favourite fabulists, writing both in prose and in poetry. Most of us today will be at home with the adventures of Ratty, Mr Toad, Mole, Badger and Otter, the protagonists of Kenneth Graham’s ‘Wind in the Willow’s’, now over one hundred years old. At first, we find ourselves laughing at the moral deviousness of these androids but it doesn’t take us long to find ourselves laughing on the other side of our face.
Affection for these fables has made me less intolerant of the invasion of animals in TV advertising and entertainment. Who, in their senses, would think of buying a car or house or of taking out life insurance without first consulting a well-groomed meerkat agent, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a pin-striped suit? Charming Orangutans are now deemed the best judges of energy-saving devices for home and industry. It can only be a matter of time till the directorship of STV is entrusted to an articulate Muppet and Kermit the Frog is awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
I had a priest friend who was weary of these animations and got rid of his TV. He replaced it with a fish tank. At first this seemed to settle his nerves, but eventually he got rid of the fish tank too, when he became convinced that the fish were watching him more closely than he was watching them.
A la memoire de Kathleen Burns (McAnulty)
une enseignante sans pareil:
Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché,
Lui tint à peu près ce langage :
«Hé ! bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli ! que vous me semblez beau !
Sans mentir, si votre ramage
Se rapporte à votre plumage,
Vous êtes le Phénix des hôtes de ces bois.»
A ces mots le Corbeau ne se sent pas de joie ;
Et pour montrer sa belle voix,
Il ouvre un large bec, laisse tomber sa proie.
Le Renard s’en saisit, et dit : «Mon bon Monsieur,
Apprenez que tout flatteur
Vit aux dépens de celui qui l’écoute :
Cette leçon vaut bien un fromage, sans doute.»
Le Corbeau, honteux et confus,
Jura, mais un peu tard, qu’on ne l’y prendrait plus.
A free translation
Master Crow, perched high in a tree,
firmly held a cheese in his beak.
Master Fox, attracted by be scent,
tempted him along the following lines:
Hi there! Good day, Master Crow.
How attractive you are! How beautiful you seem to me!
Without a doubt, if your bird-song
is anything like your plumage,
you must be the toast of the entire forest.
At these words the crow was beside himself with joy,
and to demonstrate his fine voice,
he opened wide his big mouth and let the cheese fall out.
The fox grabbed it with ‘My dear Monseigneur,
learn the lesson that every flatterer
prospers at the expense of his audience;
I am sure this lesson is worth the price of a piece of cheese’.
The crow, embarrassed and confused,
resolved that he would not be so easily duped again.
Even when the Fabulist offers a moral at the end of his poem, as is the case with The Crow and the Fox, we can often find ourselves at odds with his conclusion. In the Crow and the Fox, La Fontaine seems to settle for ‘Learn from your mistakes’. Other options might reasonably be ‘Know when to keep your big mouth shut’ or ‘After pride comes a fall’ or ‘Flattery will get you everywhere’ or ‘You can’t be sure of the bite till it is in your mouth’.
Laudato si’: Praised be God for all his creatures
On Pentecost Day, 24 May this year, Pope Francis published his Encyclical Letter on the environment, entitled Laudato si’. The Letter is inspired by the ‘Canticle of Brother Sun’, a hymn composed by Saint Francis of Assisi (died 1226). It is, of course, also occasioned by one of the great issues of our day, the care of the environment which is more at risk than ever before. The Canticle proclaims the solidarity of creation with humanity, to the point of describing other creatures, including the elemental forces of nature – the sun, the moon and the stars, wind, water and fire, mother earth, all as brothers and sisters in one family.
Sadly, this family has become dysfunctional and flawed in many ways. Saint Francis was not the first to grasp this. Saint Paul stands at the head of Christian environmentalists. Not only men and women are in need of redemption as a result of their fall from grace. They have to work out their destiny in a fallen world:
‘The whole of creation is waiting for God to reveal his sons.
It was not for any fault on the part of creation
that it was unable to attain its purpose,
it was made so by God;
but creation still retains the hope of being freed, like us,
from its slavery to decadence,
to enjoy the same freedom and glory as the children of God’. (Romans 8.18ff)
We began in La Fontaine’s fantasy world of a fox and a crow, both images of flawed human nature, one as unscrupulous as the other is gullible. As we step back into the real world with Pope Francis, the fox is still there, but he wears a new disguise and has found new ways to flatter and deceive and rob. The crow is there too, still in danger of being cheated of his heritage.